Israel, Palestine and the mirage of a two-state solution

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Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies. But they also agree on some things. Neither the government of Israel nor Hamas has any real interest in a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And neither side wants to stop fighting in Gaza — even as the territory is devastated around them.

Nonetheless, at some point, the fighting will stop. The day afterwards, the world will face a series of urgent questions. Who will rebuild the territory, who will govern it, how will it be supplied?

Even the Biden administration insists that Israel cannot reoccupy Gaza. But relations between Israel and the UN have essentially broken down. And the UN would be understandably wary of extending its responsibilities in Gaza, given that more than a hundred of its employees have been killed in the Israeli onslaught on the territory.

For lack of a better alternative, the US is working on plans to bring the Palestinian Authority, nominally in charge of parts of the occupied West Bank, back in to run Gaza. But the PA is widely regarded as a weak and corrupt organisation with little credibility. (That is another thing which Israel and Hamas agree on.)

As for the money, I have heard senior EU officials say unequivocally that Europe will not pay for the reconstruction of Gaza. (The sums of money required by Ukraine are already mind-boggling). The US Congress seems to be turning against all forms of foreign assistance. People talk airily about the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs footing the bill. But will they really do that — without any clear political structures to fund in Gaza?

So there may be no way of dealing with the immediate disaster in Gaza without an agreement, at least on paper, on a long-term political solution.

The Saudis, like the Americans and the EU, have long advocated a two-state solution — in the context of the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

But, these days, even the supporters of a two-state solution often sound embarrassed to utter the phrase. Understandably. This idea has been pushed repeatedly for more than 30 years — but consistently failed to take root.

The conditions for a two-state deal are, in most respects, far worse than they were in 1991 — when the Madrid peace conference put the idea firmly on the international agenda. Back then, there were fewer than 100,000 Israeli settlers on the occupied West Bank. Today there are about 500,000.

In the 1990s, there were flourishing peace movements in both Israel and among the Palestinians. But that was before the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, two Palestinian intifadas and terrorism inside Israel, the rise of Hamas in Gaza and repeated Israeli attacks on the territory.

The peace camps in both Palestine and Israel were already marginalised, before Hamas’s attack on Israel. Now, as my colleague Andrew England reports, even some Israelis participating in intercommunity dialogue, relapse into talk of “wiping out Gaza”. If the Israelis feel like that after the attacks of October 7, why would the Palestinians feel any differently about Israel after more than 17,000 deaths in Gaza?

The bleak truth is that some of the worst suspicions both sides have about each other are true. Hamas has said repeatedly they would like to destroy Israel and massacre more Israelis. There are far-right extremists in key positions in the Israeli government, who openly dream of driving the Palestinians out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Since October 7, the Netanyahu government has not elaborated any kind of new long-term vision for the Israel-Palestine question. That may be because Israel is so focused on its goal of the destruction of Hamas that it cannot think long term. Or it may be because the government’s plan involves forcing the Gazans into Egypt — which is an idea that both the Biden administration and Egypt itself have repeatedly rejected.

Netanyahu — like his sometime friend, Russian president Vladimir Putin (the two men had a long conversation this week) — may be hoping that new opportunities will open up, if and when Donald Trump returns to the White House. But there is a snag in that strategy. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are ardent supporters of Israel. However they also place great store in their relationship with the Saudis. In 2017, Trump’s first trip as president was to Riyadh.

Some people around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, are strikingly unemotional about the Palestinian cause. Their real focus remains the modernisation of Saudi Arabia. The normalisation of relations with Israel, a tech powerhouse, might contribute to that goal — as well as forcing the Americans to give Riyadh security guarantees. But the Saudis know that they cannot now normalise with Israel, if it looks as if they are betraying the Palestinians in the process.

So if Saudi Arabia does get involved in an effort to reconstruct Gaza, it will certainly demand more substantive Israeli commitments to a future Palestinian state in return.

There are many reasons to doubt whether Israel would ever deliver on any such promise. But the people of Gaza cannot simply be left to live among the ruins of their homes. Getting short-term assistance to them still requires a long-term vision for Palestine. If anyone has a better idea than two states for two peoples, the moment to come forward is now.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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